Police Can’t Rely on “Community Caretaking” Exception to the Fourth Amendment

The California Supreme Court recently held that the police can’t enter your home by relying on a vague idea that someone might be injured in your home.

In People v. Ovieda, the defendant was in his home with two friends when he started talking about suicide. At one point Ovieda grabbed a pistol, but the friends were able to take it away. Ovieda then went to the closet to get a rifle, but the friends once again disarmed him.  One friend stayed with Ovieda while the other took the guns to the garage. The friends called the cops and Ovieda’s relatives. One friend stayed with Ovieda until the police arrived and then walked Ovieda outside when the police arrived. When he exited the house Ovieda was handcuffed. The police then entered the home to make a protective sweep.

The police admitted that the friend told them that there was no one in the house. They also admitted that Ovieda denied being suicidal or armed.  The police officer testified that there was no domestic violence situation or other evidence of a crime The  police had no “specific information that led [them] to believe somebody else was inside.” More cops were called to the search.  No search warrant was ever obtained.

The search resulted in seizure of guns including a machine gun, drugs and drug sales equipment. Ovieda was charged with weapons possession and possession of drugs with the intent to sell them. Ovieda then brought a motion to suppress the drugs and weapons seized as the product of an unreasonable warrantless search.

The trial court said that the police had a right to search based on the ‘Community Caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment. The “Community Caretaking” exception was established in People v. Ray where the California Supreme Court held “Under the community caretaking exception, circumstances short of a perceived emergency may justify a warrantless entry, including the protection of property, as ‘where the police reasonably believe that the premises have recently been or are being burglarized.’ ” The Appellate Court affirmed the decision that the search in Ovieda was valid under the "community caretaking" exception.

The California Supreme Court disagreed, reasoning that “the line between a mere hunch and a reasonable suspicion based on articulable facts can be a fine one, but such a line does exist. If all that is required is the possibility that someone in some house might require aid, any officer on patrol might urge that people in homes often need help and the officer entered to make sure assistance was not required.” “The line falls between the mere inchoate possibility that an emergency could exist and the officer’s articulation of facts that make it reasonable, even if uncertain, to believe an emergency does exist.”

The California Supreme Court reverse and remanded to the trial court to have the motion to suppress granted. A good day for the constitution and California citizens. If you have been arrested and you think there was a questionable search, call me at 213-893-8640.

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